16 June

Last week I was in London, England with my daughter and we had a chance to visit the British Museum. It is, of course, an exceptional cross section of the human civilization. What of the great aspects of the collections are their breadth: the way you can compare and contrast are creations of different civilizations that are greatly separated by time and geography. For example we visited the Elgin marbles from ancient Greece, and then almost immediately afterwards went to see a collection of Chinese Buddhas and then, on the way out, I had a chance to look at one of the heads from Easter Island.

During the visit I was struck by two obvious realizations. Firstly, there is both a huge diversity, variety and depth of feeling that various civilizations have been able to express in their artworks. Even though the subject matter at hand is often the same, different cultures have managed to depict is highly characteristic ways. Even one civilizations are closely related and intentionally use the same expressive forms, as with Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, the individual nature of the local context is irrepressible. Much like different people interpreting a Rorschach, each civilization cannot help but leave it's own unique signature.

Secondly, the immense productivity and impact of our current technological civilization are totally out of keeping with everything that has come before. Not only has our current phase been amazing brief so far, but the extent of its impact is completely off the scale in every possible measure. We all know there are been immense technological chance in the last hundred years, but seeing the artifact of one long-lived civilization after another provides tremendous emphasis to how weird and anomalous the last hundred years have been. It's not just technology, but the nature of what we are now producing that is so different.

In some ways a species is defined not merely by its genome (DNA) or phenotype, but by the information matrix is carries along with it. For many species this matrix of ideas, behaviors and thoughts is encoded in DNA and constantly rebuilt (for example, with ants). For some non-human species, there are substantive cultural characteristics that are passed from parent to child, as with some hunting animals of chimpanzee clans. It is similarly easy to imagine that if true machine intelligence is every achieved, then the information matrix that defines it will be the primal characteristic of a species, just as it defines the distinction between Microsoft Word versus Apple's iPhoto. For humans today, it seems we have crossed a barrier between a state where the information binding us was evanescent, as with ants, to a very different mode of existence where our species has been redefined by a combination of physical form and information state.

Mummy at the British Museum
Mummy at the British Museum

By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
Re: London, England

Loved that museum, wish I could go back!

Posted by: anonymous at June 19,2010 15:41
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